Will the coronavirus pandemic change your summer travel plans? Experts share their predictions.

By Eric Rosen
May 12, 2020
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Summer travel usually means family vacations, sun-drenched beach getaways, meandering road trips, and extended jaunts to far-flung destinations like Europe and Asia. However, with a global pandemic unfolding, those experiences might look a little different this year. Coronavirus outbreaks continue to flare up around the world, international travel restrictions remain in place, and over half of the world's airplanes are still grounded. Many families are also feeling a financial sting due to the economic downturn. And folks who already had plans were likely forced to cancel them.

With that in mind, we don’t know exactly what summer travel will look like, but one thing is certain: You can expect change. To get a better idea of what may be in store for those who do wish to travel this summer, we turned to a handful of experts for their predictions. Here’s what they had to say.

Destinations Opening Soon(ish)

Some countries and U.S. states have already begun relaxing their stay-at-home orders, while others are extending their lockdowns by weeks. Meanwhile, airlines continue to cut flight schedules and most international travel remains prohibited. All of that will lead to a “spotty” summer vacation season, according to Scott Berman, PwC’s U.S. hospitality and leisure practice leader. “There appears to be enormous pent-up leisure demand,” he said. “The unknown is whether consumers will be confident to leave their home communities.”

Given that uncertainty, John Grant, a senior analyst with British aviation data and analytics firm OAG, said travelers remain unwilling to commit to plans just yet. “We are in a real classic ‘chicken-or-egg’ situation,” he said. “We are beginning to see more people making search requests for travel, particularly for August onward, but there is doubt about what capacity will be available, and that is creating an almost stand-off position.”

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Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel, said most travelers might put off travel for several more months. “We are beginning to see consumers book trips for three months out and beyond. Based on these initial bookings, we expect to see more consumers opting for shorter domestic trips over longer international travels that have historically been popular during the summer months.”

That’s not to say travelers won’t eventually book trips closer in, according to Brett Snyder, founder of Cranky Flier and Cranky Concierge. “People likely won't set their plans until closer to travel, so they can get a better picture of what the health situation will be.” We just might not get a clear picture of bookings until weeks, or even days, before folks decide to venture out.

Cleanliness as a Commodity

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In order for anyone to consider traveling again, though, they have to feel comfortable first. “The travel industry has to convince people that it is truly safe to travel,” said Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic and director of its vaccine research group. “People will be very cautious in general for some time to come.” To that end, the U.S. Travel Association published new hygiene guidelines formulated by medical professionals to help companies meet the public’s health needs as they consider ‘travel in the new normal.’”

Regardless of the type of trips travelers end up booking, sanitation will be top of mind. “Cleanliness, hygiene, and health will be the ‘holy trinity’ for summer travel decision-making,” said aviation industry expert Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group.

Travel companies, including hotels and airlines, will do everything possible to implement and publicize new sanitation efforts, according to Konrad Waliszewski, co-founder and CEO of the travel app TripScout. “Hygiene will be the new buzzword pitched by destinations and travel companies,” he said. “How socially distant you can be from other people, how often everything is cleaned, and what protective measures are in place for the staff will dominate the communication for anyone trying to lure travelers this year.”

Many travel brands already seem to be putting these policies into practice. “Almost all U.S. airlines now require or strongly encourage passengers to wear face masks,” explained Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Many airlines like Delta and American are limiting the number of passengers on flights in an attempt to create more social distance between people on board.” Keyes noted that these are costly moves from a business perspective, “but less costly than having no passengers at all.” On the other hand, these strategies might not work for airlines in particular, according to Snyder. “Airlines are doing what they can, but ultimately, there is no way to properly social distance when flying, so it's a tradeoff that each person will have to evaluate,” he said.

When it comes to lodging, Waliszewski said that short-term rentals such as Airbnb and VRBO could outperform hotels in the near-term as travelers attempt to avoid interactions with strangers. However, hotels will tout new cleaning practices to their advantage. “The bigger hotel brands that are able to advertise their new hygienic and socially distancing measures will outperform all other hotels,” he said. Waliszewski also expects hotels to promote mobile check-in, discourage groups in public areas, and even advertise low occupancy rates as a guarantee that guests will have more space to move about.

But companies and destinations will also have to strike a balance between safety and letting travelers have fun, according to Misty Belles, the managing director of global public relations for the Virtuoso travel advisor network. “Destinations will need to assure visitors that they are managing crowd control because the notion of social distancing is a mindset that’s going to stay with us long after travel restrictions are lifted,” she said. “Destinations will [also] have to show that visitors can still enjoy their visit, [and] that enough restaurants and attractions will be open that it’s worth their while.”

Road Trip Resurgence

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Experts predict that people will largely look to visit domestic and drivable destinations because of new health and economic concerns. “We’ll see more three- and four-day trips because of finances, work pressures, safety concerns, and changing school schedules,” hypothesized Dr. Poland.

Clayton Reid, the CEO of travel marketing firm MMGY Global, said, “Community-centered and regional leisure [road] trips [will] begin the recovery this summer. Then, it will build in concentric circles out from people's homes.”

Even if that goes smoothly, trips abroad still might not be on the horizon for a while. “I doubt we’re going to see a lot of international travel,” said Dr. Poland. “The lesson has not been lost on most of us that if this breaks out again and you’re overseas, then you could be stuck, and you might not have the same quality of medical care, depending on where you are.”

Instead, Waliszewski thinks we will witness “a rise in travel to smaller, domestic destinations followed by cities that were especially competent — or lucky — in their response to the pandemic.”

Harteveldt pointed to finances as the primary motivator, or obstacle, for many people’s summer trips. “Having either lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced, many Americans…may not be able to afford a vacation,” he said. For those still willing to take a trip, whom he calls “tiptoe travelers,” Harteveldt said, “I think more will take road trips than fly. Gas prices are low, which makes a road trip much more affordable than flying.”

That does seem to be the route many travelers intend to take this summer, according to AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano. “This summer, we expect to see a resurgence in road trips, especially with cheaper gas prices,” she said.

Companies like AmericanTours International, which specializes in U.S. and Canadian tour packages, are already retooling their offerings toward briefer, customizable, road-based trips. “We are developing shorter duration packages as these have always been booked more extensively by our domestic clients,” said ATI’s chief operating officer, Nick Hentschel. “We are also focusing on promoting the flexibility of our platform, allowing agents to make changes and customize their trips.” That flexibility is likely going to be an essential component for many travelers still worried about COVID-related mass travel bans and flight cancellations.

Wellness and Wide-open Spaces

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Given how long folks have been cooped up in their homes, experts also suspect many travelers will gravitate toward the great outdoors. “Travelers will lean toward [driving] holidays and discovering wide-open spaces,” said Hentschel. “RV and camper trips will be particularly popular.” MMGY’s Reid added, “We also expect national and state parks to experience one of the largest visitation growth periods in history as people are clamoring to return to leisure experiences.”

The National Park Service is already bracing for an unprecedented influx of visitors this summer, and quickly implementing new safety measures. “More than 250 parks have remained partially accessible throughout the pandemic,” said National Park Service spokesperson Kathy Kupper. “While they and other parks are increasing recreational access for visitor enjoyment, the return to full operations will continue to be phased, and services may be limited.” The agency plans to examine each facility and park according to the White House’s Opening Up America Again guidelines. “The health and safety of park visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners continue to be paramount,” said Kupper.

Meanwhile, Belles said she expects “spas, wellness retreats, and places that can help restore mental and physical well-being will also be a summer favorite.” They'll provide a much-needed respite after the stress of quarantine.

Bargain Fares and Flexible Flights

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When it comes to flying this summer, some experts suggested that airlines will maintain their current flexible change policies and fee waivers, as well as offer attractive fares to woo passengers back onto planes.

“Airlines are doing everything they can to try to entice more bookings...and the simplest way to do that is slashing fares. We’re awash in cheap flights,” said Keyes. “The number of mistake fares in the past two months has exploded as airlines do major surgery to their schedules and accidentally make a few errors along the way. These range from $23 round-trip [tickets] to Puerto Rico to $210 nonstop round-trip [flights] to Chile.”

Aside from one-off bargains, Harteveldt said, “We will see airlines offer substantial discounts across their route networks, in economy and premium cabins, and offer bonus miles to their frequent-flier program members to entice travelers.”

According to OAG’s Grant, “Airlines will likely apply more flexible restrictions to fares that allow at least one change to reservations, so that passengers can purchase with a little more confidence and reassurance around changing flights.”

From Personal to Purposeful

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Beyond price and safety, however, people will want to travel for personal reasons, said Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the Modern Elder Academy and advisor to Airbnb.

“Family- and friend-oriented travel will predominate as it's hard to Zoom a wedding, experience a family reunion using virtual reality, or Skype a 75th birthday party,” he said. “Transformational travel will also see a resurgence as people will be...looking for answers as they've had a lot of time to reflect on their lives.”

Conley also said, “I would bet on Hawaii or Florida before Las Vegas. People will want paradise and nature before [choosing to be] indoors with lots of people and cigarette smoke.”

Summer and Beyond

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Though summer is usually a peak time for travel, 2020 is shaping up to be a very different year. Folks who do decide to take a trip will have to contend with major concerns surrounding finances and health, even as airlines, hotels, and destinations adjust to the new normal with heightened sanitation standards.

As long as people still want to travel, though, there is hope for the industry to rebound, as well as the potential for exciting new innovations. Some sources are already noting an increase in interest for travel beyond summer 2020. “Our travel advisors are telling us that they’re planning trips for 2021 and fielding inquiries for available options,” said Erika Richter, a spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Advisors. “For international adventures, bucket-list trips, and milestone celebrations, travelers are sourcing ideas and looking to take advantage of attractive pricing and flexible booking options.”

The most important thing, however, will be to keep yourself and those around you healthy, and to plan to travel when you are comfortable doing so based on your own personal concerns.